NGC Ancients: Hadrian’s Travels

Posted on 6/12/2012

This month, NGC Ancients traces the wide-ranging journeys of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138), as depicted on his coinage.

Hadrian, who succeeded his adoptive father Trajan to the throne upon the latter’s death in AD 117, had the luxury of ruling in the middle of what is now considered to be a golden age, when five so-called “good emperors” reigned. Hadrian was the most Hellenistic (i.e. a devotee of Greek culture) of all Roman Emperors, and this heavily influenced how he spent his regnal years.

The relative lack of military action during Hadrian’s reign left him free to pursue other goals, notably the construction of many public works and extensive political tours throughout his Empire. Indeed, Hadrian spent far more time traveling the provinces than he did in Rome during the two decades of his rule.

To commemorate his travels and spread valuable political propaganda, Hadrian issued coins with various reverse types related to these journeys. His first trip, which took him out of Rome from 121 to 125, included such destinations at Britannia (modern Great Britain), Hispania (modern Spain), and parts of North Africa. He also visited Athens, a place he would naturally wish to visit as a follower of Hellenistic culture, and a city to which he would return on future trips. The metropolis held a fascination for him, and he had been elected a citizen in 112, long before he became emperor.

This rare bronze sestertius, issued by Hadrian in c.134-8, commemorates his journey to Britain. It depicts on the obverse a portrait of the emperor, and on the reverse the newly-created goddess Britannia, seated with one foot upon a pile of rocks and holding a spear. In 122, during his stay in Britain, the emperor initiated the construction of the famous “Hadrian’s Wall,” which was intended to mark the boundary between Roman lands and the barbarian territories to the north.

Hadrian also issued coin types that commemorated his journeys to Hispania, Gallia, and Africa during this same time period. This silver denarius, issued c.134/5-8, depicts on the reverse the reclining form of the goddess Hispania, holding a laurel branch.

Likewise, this denarius, struck about the same time, features on the obverse a fine portrait of the emperor, and on the reverse a symbolic scene of Hadrian, holding a scroll and “raising” the personification of Gaul, along with the inscription “RESTITVTORI GALLIAE.”

Interestingly, this same type of symbolism was used on a copper As of Hadrian, struck during the same era but depicting Hadrian with the goddess Africa.

Hadrian undertook another grand tour of his empire from 128 to 132. He again visited Athens, and subsequently went to the province of Judaea in 130, where his actions eventually sparked the Bar Kochba Revolt, in 132 (after Hadrian’s departure from the province). While in Jerusalem, Hadrian erected a Roman shrine on the site of the Temple razed during the Jewish Revolt (66-73) and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina in honor of his family, both considered key events in the process that eventually resulted in Simon Bar Kochba’s revolt.

This coin, another bronze sestertius issued under Hadrian, references his time spent within that province. The reverse, inscribed ADVENTVI AVG IVDAEAE, portrays the emperor facing the figure of Judaea, who is sacrificing while children stand before and behind.

After leaving Judaea, Hadrian went to Egypt, and there had a fateful cruise on the Nile. It was here, in 130, that Hadrian’s companion Antinous drowned in the river. This extremely rare medallion features on the obverse an image of the deified youth. It was struck at Corinth, Greece, shortly after his death, and its reverse depicts Bellerophon, restraining a rearing Pegasus. Hadrian also established a cult centered around Antinous, which became quite popular throughout the Mediterranean world.

Despite the personal tragedy he suffered with his companion’s death, Hadrian issued coins to mark his stay in Egypt. Illustrated here is a silver denarius, struck between 134 and 138, that depicts the reclining personification of Egypt with an ibis, a bird native to the land, at her feet.

Hadrian’s last trip lasted from 134 until 136, when he returned to Rome. It consisted of a tour throughout Syria, a return to Judaea (to deal with the aftermath of the Bar Kochba Revolt), and a final tour through Egypt. He returned via Syria to Rome, where he died two years later, in 138.

Hadrian was remarkable even amongst the so-called “good emperors” of his era; he is remembered even today for his famously wide-ranging journeys, the advantageous by-product of an uncommonly peaceful time in Roman history. Coins that commemorate his journeys are prized by collectors of ancient coins, as they are physical pins on an imaginary map of Hadrian’s Empire, now almost two thousand years gone.

Images courtesy of CNG.

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